We live in a world of connectivity. A world where communication is key. In fact, even as we are told how separate our nations are from one another, entertainment is bringing us together. But it can’t do it by itself. There is a little invention (one that has been perfected over time) that is letting us into each other’s cultures. Welcome to the new age of subtitles.
The Unspoken Language
If you have read anything about cinema, you know that people love to describe it as a landscape of the future. This is mostly the industry telling us that they are always on the cutting edge. Often, this means using cool technology to make movies while making movies about why we should be scared of technology.
However, at its core, cinema is a visual medium. No matter who you are, there is always the thrill of an amazing John Wick fight scene or the breathtaking flyover shots of Pandora in the Avatar films.
It is a rare thing to be able to sit two strangers with nothing in common except their humanity down on a couch and watch them have the same reaction to The Matrix or Jurassic Park. They may not understand a word the other says, but after watching, they have plenty they’d like to talk about.
Hollywood Ain’t the Only Game in Town
For far too long, US audiences have believed that Hollywood was the only place to get quality films with interesting casts. This meant that the rest of the globe was essentially switched off from US audiences. But what does the rest of the world have to offer? And what has it been offering this entire time? The truth is that it has quite a bit to offer and there are far too many influential films to count.
Modern English-speaking directors often point to other countries as the influences for their films. Movies like the Magnificent 7, The Birdcage, and even The Departed are all copies of foreign films. However, most US audiences don’t know this because the Hollywood establishment has told the average US viewer that “foreign” equals strange because “foreign” doesn’t have the actors we know. It doesn’t matter if these actors are well-known the world over. If they are not known in the US then they may as well not exist.
The truth is that world cinema has been alive and well for a number of decades. Incidentally, that number is a lot higher than you might think. People have a vague idea about Bollywood but there is also the cutting-edge crime cinema of Japan and the overall crazy cinema of Korea. There are films made in Scandinavia and quite a few are produced and directed in South Africa. Even the Middle East has its own brand of movies.
So why are we ignoring these places? Other than Hollywood drilling into us that we need to, the main culprit is language. For a long time, US audiences were unable to watch foreign films because there were no subtitles available on mass-market VHS tapes. When DVDs came into fashion, many of the films were simply hard to find and were therefore only found by those who were looking for them. However, now that we’ve gone digital there is a whole new world of opportunities where language is no longer an issue.
How Subtitles are Revolutionizing Streaming
Nearly everyone has some streaming service at their fingertips. Some even have the entire smorgasbord with Netflix, Apple TV, HBO Max, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and all the others. In fact, there are so many now that it feels like the cable wars all over again. However, the pool is even more interesting now because not only do we not have to wait to watch things at specific times, but we have the opportunity to fall down rabbit holes of content.
But what does this have to do with subtitles? Streaming services like Netflix have begun acquiring shows and movies from non-US sources. They are also doing something that previous stakeholders have not. They are choosing not to dub.
Let’s ask our friend ChatGPT about dubbing. Hey, scary robot brain! What’s dubbing?
Dubbing refers to the process of adding new audio to existing audio-visual content, such as films, television shows, or video games. This audio typically includes a localized soundtrack in a different language from the original. Dubbing is common in many countries as a means of making media accessible to a wider audience.
Thanks, scary robot brain!
As the machine that is going to eventually take my job said, this technique puts an audio track over existing audio to make it accessible to wider audiences. However, this has had a strange effect. Many dubs are not direct translations. This has led to some hilarious changes to dialogue that have confounded audiences for years.
But could there be an alternative that has existed for a long time that would be even easier to use while maintaining the purity of the original? I mean, other than completely unnecessary Hollywood remakes that ruin the original? Why yes there is. It’s called subtitles. You’ve heard of them and yet you may not like them. Do you know why? The number one reason given by US audiences: I don’t want to have to read during a movie.
What a bunch of self-centered twerps. Listen, it’s been fun living in our North American bubble (stop looking at us, Canada!) but it's time to open up our minds and use the vague amount of literacy we still have left. And people are. It’s true! The amount of foreign-language films on basic streaming has skyrocketed. This includes great action movies from Korea, funny and weird films from France, and even shows from Germany. US audiences are flocking to these shows thanks to the slow stream of words at the bottom of their screens.
One of the other factors that have led to this multicultural media revolution is the types of televisions we have. Large screen, digital models that can show us the words without obscuring the visuals. This means that people are not only curious about foreign-language content but are able to give in to that curiosity and explore it in the comfort of their own homes. People used to need to actively seek out theaters that were showing these films. Now they are right there in our living rooms.
What This Means for the Future of Entertainment
Now that we are starting to accept subtitles as a part of our entertainment, we will start seeing more original films instead of US remakes. People will do what they have done since the beginning of film: Find new directors, tell their friends, and share content and reviews. This will allow directors to make more films, expand their influence, and work with bigger names. It will also allow US audiences to experience the work of foreign actors who deserve attention without them needing to star in an English-language film.
Language barriers have always existed but that is why we need great translators. Whether it is an interpreter standing beside a politician or a stream of sentences across the bottom of a screen it still has the same effect. So turn on your subtitles and stop complaining that your world is being taken over. It’s not your world. You just live in everyone else’s.